Did Netflix cross the data-disclosure line?

Source: Netflix/Twitter
Dec 18, 2017
Tom Ryan

A social media firestorm erupted last week after a tweet from Netflix arrived that some felt shamed 53 of its subscribers for their obsessive viewing habits.

“To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?” Netflix wrote in the tweet.

Larger retailers sometimes use their customer data — on an anonymous basis — for marketing, content or research purposes.

On December 27 last year, Amazon, for instance, released a number of “Holiday Fun Facts” tied to purchasing data. The findings around spending on Amazon.com during the 2016 holiday season included:

  • Enough 4K TVs were purchased to reach the peak of Mount Everest more than 9 times;
  • Approximately 2.5 million watches were bought, or one every 1.5 seconds;
  • Enough KitchenAid Mixers were purchased to make nearly 7.5 million cookies at once.

Google continues to expand Google Trends, which tracks popular searches in both real time and non-real time.

Spotify, the music streaming service, has also used its stats in advertising. Last year, one campaign read, “Dear 3,749 people who streamed ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ the day of the Brexit vote, hang in there.”

The Netflix tweet was intended as a joke, but some took offense. Among the negative responses:

  • “Very creepy, Netflix. Not cool spying on your PAYING customers and then judging them in public.”
  • “This is an invasion of privacy. They pay you for however they want to use your product and don’t deserve to be ridiculed.”
  • “To the @netflix employee who recently watched 1984: It’s not an instruction manual.”

Still, others found the tweet entertaining and jokingly urged Netflix to research their own fanatical viewing habits. One responder was surprised many didn’t realize the depth of information Netflix, as well as Facebook, Google and Amazon, collects on them.

In response to the negative reaction, Netflix said in a statement, “The privacy of our members’ viewing is important to us. This information represents overall viewing trends, not the personal viewing information of specific, identified individuals.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why did Netflix’s “A Christmas Prince” tweet cause a social media uproar when Amazon’s “Holiday Fun Facts” list didn’t? Should companies refrain altogether from publicizing customer data, even anonymously, for marketing purposes?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Friends can be funny. Sometimes. Services you pay for should always try to be neutral."
"The firestorm this tweet created is over the “Who hurt you?” and not the fact that Netflix has data on its subscribers IMHO. "
"Best PR? Fake controversy. And that’s what this is. "

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27 Comments on "Did Netflix cross the data-disclosure line?"

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Art Suriano

The problem often with jokes is what someone finds funny, someone else does not. Amazon gave fun facts, but Netflix implied that they tracked 53 subscribers. When a company or person attempts to be funny, they need to think through their joke before posting it. Fun facts as Amazon posted are a lot safer than any implication to tracking the company’s customers, and that’s where Netflix went wrong.

I don’t know that we need any of these attempts at humor, but if a company is compelled to be humorous they need to be very careful about what they post, say or advertise. Offend your customers and you will not only lose their business, you won’t get them back.

Shep Hyken

Oh, come on! The comment was meant to be funny. None of the customers’ identities were revealed. No company should offend anyone, and this tweet was not meant to be malicious or offensive at all. I joke about my son watching Star Wars dozens of times. I don’t think he was ever offended by my comments. If anything, he was proud of being our resident Star Wars expert.

No doubt there is a line that should not be crossed in revealing data, even anonymously. For the most part, good companies like Netflix and Amazon know where that line is.

Seth Nagle

Right on point Shep, when I first saw this in the headlines I assumed Twitter called out the users by their Twitter feeds … as a marketer it’s getting tougher and tougher to create content that won’t get your brand in trouble. If this keeps up marketers will soon need a law degree just to publish content for their company.

Max Goldberg

Amazon’s use of customer data was to create some interesting facts. Netflix seemed intent on embarrassing some of their customers. When big companies act like bullies, they get called out on social media. It’s OK to use anonymous data to entertain, but not to bully. And to those folks who think that their shopping and viewing habits are not being collected, wake up.

Gene Detroyer

C’mon Max. Who got embarrassed?

Stuart Jackson

Netflix’s tweet goes to the heart of the whole debate about data collection, storage, privacy and usage. On the one hand, brands need rich data to personalize and customize their products and services — something that customers clearly want from companies. But at the same time, we’re all concerned about data mining — where do retailers draw the line when it comes to using this data legally in marketing? How much will the customer put up with?

Netflix took a very big risk. Especially because it exposed the extent of the data it is collecting. But I think it was a risk worth taking. The vast majority of people understand that all brands collect and use huge amounts of individual data and won’t be very surprised or shocked. Yes there was a backlash on social media but no one was named, no one was harmed, Netflix showcased their offering in a unique way and demonstrated that they could make a decent joke given half a chance.

Ryan Mathews

Look, I know it was supposed to be a joke, but it veered into customer shaming. There may indeed be something wrong with people who watched “A Christmas Prince” more than once. Let’s look at another example. If say, a group of Amazon customers all ordered, “A Savage God,” and other books on depression and suicide and began streaming depressing music and movies would Amazon be right in emailing a note reading, “To the 213 people clearly depressed by the holidays, don’t do it!”? Not so funny. Odds are those 53 customers — if they are real — have kids at home of the age where they want to obsessively watch the same movie over and over again. Again, maybe a joke, or maybe a tone deaf attack on doting parents. I agree with Max. Facts are fun. Personalized jokes can be problematic.

Mohamed Amer

The precision of the statement, umm tweet, by Netflix and the value it imparted on its customers crossed the line.

This is very specific, “53 people” over “18 days” watching “A Christmas Prince.” While no names are mentioned, any one of those 53 people is now aware that they are a data point for Netflix to use as it wishes to promote itself.

Poking fun at the emotions of your customers is a dangerous slope for any company. The Amazon and other lists are generalized and anonymized without attacking human emotional vulnerabilities. Full disclosure: I did not watch A Christmas Prince for 18 days, I stopped at 17 … or did I miscount?

Sky Rota
1 year 3 months ago
I believe the Netflix tweet on social media TOLD people they are being watched. Yes, we all know they see every move we watch but keep it to yourself, don’t broadcast our business. People still want to believe their info or behavior is private. I don’t know where Amazon bragged about those stats last year. Was it on social media or their own site? But they need to be a bit humble as well and watch the bragging. I know I’m not happy when I go and get a bunch of snacks at Wawa and the cashier says, “you’re really hitting the snacks hard tonight!” It’s none of their business. No one should make those comments. They can say thank you for watching our Christmas specials, we’re so happy you enjoyed them. Or thanks for making this a successful holiday shopping season. But nothing specific. You can say “Netflix employees favorites” etc. but nothing about your customers. Keep your stats in-house and use them as your own reference. Now I gotta stop watching Space Jam… Read more »
Gene Detroyer

Boy, here is an example of making something out of nothing.

  1. It is a fun and interesting fact about behavior.
  2. Nobody was named.
  3. If you are privately embarrassed about your viewing habits, maybe you should change them.
Al McClain

Here’s the problem, Gene. Netflix made it clear that they COULD name these customers if they wanted to. So, IF they wanted to embarrass their customers they could. The fact that they don’t want to at the moment is irrelevant. All it takes is one rogue employee or one hacker, and lots of data could be released that would embarrass a lot of people. Why reinforce that to valued customers?

Gene Detroyer

Netflix COULD name me and all the movies I watch. (And even tell people which one’s I like … now that might be embarrassing.) They could out me for watching a particular non-rated film. But, they don’t do either. If you don’t want them to have a record of what you watch, don’t watch. I do want them to record everything I watch and recommend other films or TV shows I might like. But, if they outed me personally on anything, our relationship would end.

I would love for Netflix to publish humorous and interesting behavior facts of how and what consumers watch. I would find it fascinating.

Brandon Rael

There’s a fine line between leveraging consumer insights as part of your entertainment algorithm and crossing over the line. However, I do believe that this tweet by Netflix was never meant to be anything other than funny. Things get misinterpreted in the Twittersphere and this did drive quite a big discussion afterward as to how much insights they really have about their consumers.

When we engage with a Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc., we are willingly sharing our information with the expectation that this will drive the personalized and customized shopping and entertainment experiences we are all seeking.

The mantra that Netflix and others should follow is that with great power comes great responsibility.

Lee Kent

There was nothing “interesting” about their comment. It was pointed and specific and that is rude, in my book and for my 2 cents.

Zel Bianco

Friends can be funny. Sometimes. Services you pay for should always try to be neutral. It’s a golden rule of appropriate business behavior that you should never talk about politics or religion. Yes, it was meant to be funny or cute, but they have to find another way.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

The Netflix comment was sarcastic and judgmental. Sarcastic jokes are often hurtful and can be abusive. To have a company send a sarcastic and judgmental comment to a group of consumers is not cool. The Brexit comment offered encouragement in a slightly funny way. Google’s comments were objective facts not aimed at specific consumers. Netflix definitely went over the line, needs to apologize to those 53 customers, and then monitor the messages sent out in the future.

Dick Seesel

For anybody naive enough to think that Netflix, Amazon, etc. are not data-mining the viewing or purchase transactions of every single customer … how do you think these giant companies are able to forecast your preferences so accurately? The fact that Netflix gathers this kind of micro-data should not come as a surprise, and the reaction is over-the-top considering that nobody was “outed” by name as a fan of “A Christmas Prince.”

Joy Chen

Using facts to sell more product is what Amazon did with their information. There is a fine line on how to use the data but Netflix crossed the line. Data can and should be used to further business growth, but principles should be developed and followed on how it should be used to avoid a negative response like the one Netflix received.

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
1 year 3 months ago

It could have been far worse for Netflix. Yet let’s take this as a cautionary tale about social interaction: Subscribers/consumers are not your friends and don’t want to be. Treat them with professional courtesy.

Jokes sent directly to subscribers/consumers are rough — remember how hard sarcasm is in email (much less Twitter). Clearly the Netflix social media team needs someone with the maturity to have recognized how that specific tweet could come across … someone who has strong people skills and interacts with real customers (not via tweet) a lot.

But this is a common problem. Social media needs both speed and constant “feed the beast” commentary — which means typical creative controls are impractical. And this is the downside.

Steve Montgomery

Netflix should have realized that most people watching don’t realize they are being watched. I realize the fact that Netflix suggests shows based on what you watch should have been a clue. However, that could be rationalized as it is for their benefit. Posting their viewing habits, even if meant as a joke, for Netflix’s benefit is crossing the line.

Lee Peterson

Best PR? Fake controversy. And that’s what this is. Look, if you don’t think they don’t already know what we are ALL doing with their products, you’re living in a cave. So what if they had a little fun with it? It wasn’t personal (like, “hey Bill Baily of Newark … “) and it’s clearly more funny than scary. And then again, from a PR perspective: Home Run. I applaud them for being human.

As Madonna once said, “All PR is good PR.”

Ed Rosenbaum

I wonder if the person posting the tweet was fired? This is an invasion of the viewer’s privacy. I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of the tweet, would you?

Chuck Palmer

I think we are supposed to use data to create a better customer experience, not call them out and make fun of them. What Netflix got wrong here is the tone and personality. The last line — “who hurt you” — might be funny amongst friends, but in this context, it seems like the people who watch that film repeatedly are sad or depressed or something. (Not sure how I’d feel if I were part of the production of that film.)

I think it should have played into the comfort of Netflix and the holidays: “To the 53 people who have viewed A Christmas Prince everyday for the past 18 days: we’re with you. ” Or better yet, delete the number of people.

There seems to be a disconnect between the folks who are responsible for brand purpose and voice and their social media team. That’s a big miss.

Celeste C. Giampetro

The firestorm this tweet created is over the “Who hurt you?” and not the fact that Netflix has data on its subscribers IMHO. If Netflix had instead ended that seemingly innocent tweet with “Hey thanks! We’ll create more of what you like.” would any of us be debating this? This was a fail for Netflix because it was out of step with their brand voice. Live and learn and move on.

Joan Treistman

I know that companies collect my internet usage data, aggregate it, integrate it and use it to target me. But in truth I don’t know how much data is retrieved and used. And for sure there are many others who don’t know. So it can easily be a shock when there is a reference that exposes the extent to which companies can dig into our personal lives. I think that’s what happened with Netflix’s “A Christmas Prince.”

General statistics feel benign. Focused observations are creepy, scary and may induce paranoia. But it ain’t funny albeit strategically helpful.

I just learned the other day that media companies who track what videos I watch know the duration of my viewing and can eliminate the occasions when I experience buffering while viewing. OMG. I had no idea. Maybe the rest of you do, but I’m still trying to process the depth of that and its implications for me.

Peter Luff

The issue is they inferred judgement on a minority group who viewed a specific material. Those that were offended were likely never expecting to be judged in such a condescending manner. This was clumsy and at best, Netflix should reflect on this and other companies should learn a valuable lesson.

Kenneth Leung

I think the different responses to the facts are generational. Digital natives would know they are being tracked and find the results amusing, even those who are part of the targeted group would probably find it slightly shocking but not creeped out. The data is anonymous and trend based, and the fact is even those who watched the video probably don’t remember doing so.

"Friends can be funny. Sometimes. Services you pay for should always try to be neutral."
"The firestorm this tweet created is over the “Who hurt you?” and not the fact that Netflix has data on its subscribers IMHO. "
"Best PR? Fake controversy. And that’s what this is. "

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